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How to Improve Narrative Pace on a Paragraph Level

28 Jun
Roxane Gay's story "Contrapasso" first appeared in Artifice Magazine and then in Mixed Fruit.

Roxane Gay’s story “Contrapasso” first appeared in Artifice Magazine and then in Mixed Fruit. The unique structure highlights the importance of paragraph structure.

When talking about structure in fiction, we tend to focus on large-scale issues (story arc and delayed gratification of suspense) and the fine detail of sentence crafting. What often gets neglected in the conversation is a structural unit that is, in some ways, the skeleton of all fiction: the paragraph.

An excellent example of the beauty and importance of the paragraph is Roxane Gay’s story “Contrapasso.” It was first published in Artifice Magazine, and you can read it here at Mixed Fruit.

How the Story Works

In any story, a character begins with infinite possibilities, and the writer’s job is to narrow those possibilities down to a few that the character must choose from. Choosing a theme is one way to narrow the possibilities. In this story, the menu headings provide those themes. Of course, it’s not necessary to stick to the theme in a strict sense, and Gay doesn’t, but her headings do provide a direction for each paragraph.

In this paragraph (from the “Life Maine Lobster” entry on the “Meat and Seafood” page), the theme or idea of boiling lobsters provides an entry into the character and her story about bondage. The heading allows her to write a sentence like this: “Now, in the wake of her divorce, she envied the lobster and the privilege of such pain.” The entire character development proceeds from the heading.

Focusing on paragraph structure can also help you move through time. Look at this section from the “Sauteed Spinach” entry on the “Sides and Accompaniments” page. For many writers, it’s easy to fall into the trap of chronology. So, this section could have been written this way: I followed her, I saw this, I did that, she saw me, we exchanged looks, she got out her phone, I went home, and there was a knock on my door late and the words, “Open up. It’s the police.”

But Gay skips all that unnecessary connecting tissue. Here, the theme doesn’t matter as much. Instead, the paragraph headings force each paragraph to have a point: what the narrator saw, what the cops said, what the narrator did next. As a result, the narrative moves more quickly because the reader doesn’t need to slog through needless detail. But the structure also slows the narrative down. Because each paragraph focuses on a single action or event, you can’t rush on to the next event. Instead, you investigate the action more deeply, which can lead to further character development.

In this story, paragraph structure cannot be separated from story structure.

The Writing Exercise

We’ll write two paragraphs, the first concentrating on character development and the second focusing on moving through time.

Paragraph 1 (Character Development)

  1. Make a list of your characters’ interests: hobbies, food preferences, career influences, regional or cultural influences, etc. For example, if the character is an accountant, he might view the world through accounting concepts. Or, if the character is a high school student who loves to read, she might view the world through the titles of novels, like the narrator of Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl. Choose one of these interests for your theme.
  2. Write the theme as a paragraph heading.
  3. Let the character apply the theme to his or her world. For example, if your accountant character was asked how the whole world can be explained by common mistakes in basic math on tax returns, what would the character say? What if you let the character give an example from his or her life, something like this: “You’ve got two kinds of taxpayers, X and Y. Just the other day, a guy came into the office, and he was type X…”
  4. Tell the character’s story in a single paragraph. Stick to the theme you’ve given yourself.

Paragraph 2 (Moving Through Time)

  1. Same as Step 1 above. Choose a theme.
  2. Tell a story in 3 sentences: X happened. Then Y. Then Z.
  3. Build a paragraph around each of the three sentences. In each paragraph, focus less on advancing the narrative and more on describing in-depth some aspect of the action, for instance what the character sees or feels or thinks.

The goal is to move beyond what happened and moving characters around to doing the real, essential work of building a prose style and narrative sensibility.

Have fun.

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How to Build a Political Argument around a Personal Story

24 Jun
Domingo Martinez' memoir, The Boy Kings of Texas, will soon become a HBO series. His essay about the Affordable Care Act, "Quarantined," appeared in The New Republic.

Domingo Martinez’ memoir, The Boy Kings of Texas, will soon become a HBO series. His essay about the Affordable Care Act, “Quarantined,” appeared in The New Republic.

It’s no secret that personal stories can fuel political campaigns. The most successful example is the first campaign run by President Obama, but John Boehner does it as well (from a saloonkeeper’s son to the Senate) and so will/does Hillary Clinton. Watch the next presidential conventions, and you’ll notice that almost every single speaker crafts a political message from his or her life story. Some will be quite compelling, and others will come off as dull at best and crass at worst.

One of the better political/personal essays that I’ve read recently is by Domingo Martinez. His memoir, The Boy Kings of Texas, was a finalist for the National Book Award and will soon become a new TV series from HBO. But before the memoir, he wrote “Quarantined,” a short essay that you can read now at The New Republic.

How the Story Works

The essay is about the Affordable Care Act and was published in February, 2012, when the fate of the Act was still in doubt. So, Martinez had a clear goal for the piece: to explain why the ACA should be passed in its strongest possible version. He also knew that, to explain his argument, he wanted to talk about the people he grew up with in South Texas. The problem was how to connect the two without falling back on the usual talking points that every politically-engaged person in America had heard a thousand or more times. His solution is to find a third thing to spend most of the time discussing. Let’s look at how this works.

The essay begins with the author calling his grandmother in South Texas. Like many grandmothers everywhere, she ends up talking about her health. But, unlike most grandmothers, her medical treatment takes an unusual twist:

I tuned out her blessings and her current list of maladies until she told me about her terrible arthritis. I shouldn’t worry, she said, because, between the power of prayer and WD-40, her joints were working fine. I asked her, in my halting Spanish, to repeat what she had just said, especially that bit about the WD-40. “The spray stuff, that we used on the trucks, Gramma?” I asked. “El es-sprayo por los truckos?”

“Yes, that’s the stuff,” she said (en español). “I just say a prayer over it and spray my knees and my elbows, and, in the name of Jesus, the heat from the WD-40 loosens my arthritis.”

The interpretation begins at the end of the essay’s first section:

My grandmother’s not dumb or losing her mind. Like many immigrants faced with problems that demand solutions beyond their resources, she looks inward, and backward, for help—or at least delayed consequences—resorting to superstition, old wives’ tales, or illogical assumptions. Anything, so long as it does not cost money. Seeking medical advice is the last option, akin to giving up hope and faith. This is how poor people have learned to cope in South Texas.Seeking medical advice is the last option, akin to giving up hope and faith. This is how poor people have learned to cope in South Texas.

The essay, then, becomes about poverty and the methods a particular group of people have developed for living without some of the basic necessities that most Americans take for granted. He talks about his grandmother, who acts as a bank for her neighbors, who “hock pistols and rifles for small loans.” He explains the “cultural isolation and fundamental lack of understanding” that make delivery of government services a challenge. Because of those challenges, he explains the attitudes that develop around seeking out help, especially medical help: “If you’re not hemorrhaging or suffering from an embolism, then you don’t get to see a doctor.”

Eventually he zooms out from these fine-grain details:

Cameron County, where my grandmother lives, boasts one of the highest ratios of uninsured in the state; one in three people have no coverage. In Texas as a whole, one in four people live without health insurance, the worst percentage in the country.

He mentions the ACA briefly but then explains the cuts to medical services already made by Texas’ governor, Rick Perry. These cuts have affected his parents and grandmother, and they worry about what future cuts may mean for their health. By this point, Martinez is firmly within a political mode, explaining the necessity of the law. But this is not where he ends the essay. Instead, he returns to his point about the region’s poverty and challenges due to cultural barriers: even if the ACA is passed, will his grandmother take advantage of it? Or will she continue to treat her arthritis with WD-40?

Martinez writes, “Few people who speak their language have the time or inclination to try to persuade them—and even fewer are willing to pick up the phone and call.”

Rather than sticking to the well-worn arguments about expanding health care, he makes a larger argument about the political disenfranchisement of an entire group of people. In this way, by revealing the real issues faced by his family, he honors his personal story rather than simply making political hay with it.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s make a political argument with a personal story, using Domingo Martinez’s essay, “Quarantined,” as a model:

  1. Choose the general political argument that you want to make. It can be something that, when you hear pundits on TV talk about it, your blood starts to boil. Or it can be a more local issue that is usually ignored by national politicians. If possible, choose an issue that is personal to you. Doing so will help you avoid the typical arguments that everyone has begun to tune out.
  2. Choose the personal story you want to use. It doesn’t have to be a story, per se. A detail or series of details can work as well. Martinez uses the fact that his grandmother treats her arthritis with WD-40 and prayer. In short, you can use a detail or story that stands out to you or that you struggle to wrap your head around. Most of us have details about our childhood or the place where we’re from that we enjoy telling to people in order to get a reaction. Those are good details to use for a political essay because they’re usually rough-edged, whereas most political discourse tends to be polished and generic.
  3. Tell the story. Forget the political angle. Pretend it doesn’t exist. You want to tell your story in a true, authentic form, and that’s not possible if your point is already evident; the reader would become suspicious of your story. Use a basic structure: set the stage (when and where and who), what happened, and how this made you feel at the time and how it makes you feel now.
  4. Analyze the story. Why does this story stand out to you? Why do you still think about it? Martinez expresses disbelief at his mother’s use of WD-40: “The spray stuff, that we used on the trucks, Gramma?” I asked. “El es-sprayo por los trucks?” Then he offers an explanation for why she and others like her do such things: “Like many immigrants faced with problems that demand solutions beyond their resources, she looks inward, and backward, for help—or at least delayed consequences—resorting to superstition, old wives’ tales, or illogical assumptions.” While it’s true that there is an implicit political argument in this sentence (why does the U.S. not provide more assistance to immigrants?), it’s also true that Martinez is simply explaining the way things are. So, spend a few sentences explaining the behavior that you’ve just described.
  5. Analyze the story in greater depth. For Martinez, the paragraph mentioned in the previous step is just the beginning. Because he’s established the behavior and the reasons for it, he can elaborate on other types of the same behavior and other illustrations of the reasons. Try to do the same thing in your essay. Are there other things that people did/do that are like the story you told? Are there other ways to illustrate the reasons you’ve given?
  6. Zoom out from the story. Your story is almost certainly not an anomaly. But can you put numbers to it? Can you write a sentence like Martinez’s: “In Texas as a whole, one in four people live without health insurance, the worst percentage in the country.”
  7. Make your political point. Now that you’ve established the larger trend or picture as well as the personal element of the issue, you can make a suggestion for appropriate political action.
  8. If possible, move beyond the immediate politics. Martinez makes a point about the ACA, but then he makes a larger point about the reason his grandmother uses WD-40 for medical purposes, a point about political disenfranchisement. He’s explaining the deeper issue, the one that creates the need for the ACA law. So, if you can, think about what deeper political problem necessitates the law or action that you’re prescribing. You might not be able to do this, but it’s always worth a try.

Good luck!

How to Find a Plot (and Humor) with Repetition

11 Mar
Teddy Wayne's humor piece, "On the Internet, Nobody Knows You're a Human Who's Turned Into a Dog," appeared in the Shouts and Murmers Section of the New Yorker. Wayne is the author of two novels and many fictions like this one.

Teddy Wayne’s story, “On the Internet, Nobody Knows You’re a Human Who’s Turned Into a Dog,” appeared in “Shouts and Murmurs” in The New Yorker. Wayne is the author of two novels, most recently The Love Song of Jonny Valentine.

When working with plot, we tend to think forward: what happens next? But sometimes that’s the wrong question. Occasionally, we should think of plot as if we’re telling knock-knock jokes to a 4-year-old. You finish one, the kid shouts, “Again, again,” and you ask yourself, “How can I possibly tell another?”

Comedy writers understand this question perhaps better than anyone. Repetition is part of the genre. The challenge often becomes about how long the writer can stay with an idea.

Teddy Wayne uses this kind of repetition in his story, “On the Internet, Nobody Knows You’re a Human Who’s Turned Into a Dog.” It appeared in The New Yorker‘s “Shouts and Murmurs” section, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

When we break the story down by its sections, it’s clear how Wayne is repeating and modifying the same idea. Here is each section, summarized:

  1. States the premise (transformed into a dog) and the medium (Facebook).
  2. Introduces a problem with the medium: People “like” things without reading them, forcing the narrator to restate the fact that he’s turned into a dog.
  3. Introduces another problem with the medium (People expect to laugh at Facebook posts), which causes a problem for the narrator because they be laughing while he starves to death.
  4. Introduces another problem with the medium: Facebook moves on without you.
  5. Introduces another problem with the medium: Facebook attachments are weak, and so people will unfriend you if you ask too much of them.
  6. Begins to accept the limitations of the premise: The narrator’s a dog, and he won’t try to fight it.
  7. Accepts the medium: The narrator posts about non-dog topics.
  8. Fully accepts the premise: The narrator becomes a dog in mind as well as body.
  9. The payoff: The narrator finds a way to make dog life work for him and deactivates his Facebook account.

This summary reveals the clothesline that the funny stuff has been hung from. Without this structure, the writer doesn’t have the space to riff.

So, how does this structure work?

While Wayne seems to be writing about a single idea (dog transformation), he’s actually writing about two ideas: dog transformation and Facebook. It’s the latter that turns out to be the most important. If you reread the piece, you’ll see that the narrator repeats the dog premise over and over without many changes. The dog stays in the house. What changes, then, is his reaction to the limitations and problems posed by Facebook. (This is similar to what Will Ferrell does in his famous Saturday Night Live skit about the man grilling at a backyard party and yelling at his kids to get off the shed. The premise doesn’t change: the kids stay on the shed. What changes is Ferrell’s reaction to the medium: his inability to shout loudly or angrily enough to get his kids’ attention.)

As a result, the story is less about a guy turning into a dog than it is about trying—and failing—to communicate something important via Facebook. The story is funny, though, because it’s about a guy who’s turned into a dog. If it was a cry for help from someone with a more realistic problem, the story might become a tragedy, not a comedy.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s create a structure for a comic story, such as often appears in “Shouts and Murmurs,” that focuses on repetition. We’ll use Teddy Wayne’s story “On the Internet, Nobody Knows You’re a Human Who’s Turned Into a Dog” as a model:

  1. Find a premise. Your character discovers something that needs to be communicated. The premise can be absurd (man turned into a dog) or realistic (kids climbing on a forbidden shed). What’s important is making the need to communicate urgent.
  2. Find a medium. You need a method to communicate: phone, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, yelling, cup and string, Morse code, tapping on the prison wall, the “telephone” game of speaking across a chain of people.
  3. Brainstorm the limitations or expectations of the medium. Will Ferrell was limited by the distance between the grill and the shed. Wayne’s dog is limited by the ways that people interact with Facebook. The story’s tension (and humor) are produced by the ways that the medium is ill designed for the premise that must be communicated.
  4. Isolate and challenge those limitations. You can do this in real time (the character tries to communicate but fails) or as a reaction to what happened (character tries again after failing, as Wayne’s dog does). You can introduce new limitations, one after another. Or, you can let the character challenge the same limitation in increasingly strenuous ways (as Ferrell does in his skit). In this case (or, perhaps, both), the tension and humor result from the ways that the attempts to communicate push against ideas of acceptable behavior in the society in which the story takes place.
  5. Undermine or negate the premise. As your character challenges the medium through which he/she is trying to communicate, the tension will rise with each challenge until a logical endpoint appears: the character will ultimately succeed in communicating or fail and suffer the consequences. Once that end presents itself, set it aside. That’s not the ending for you. Instead, you want to surprise the reader. This is often done by undermining the premise. Ferrell wrote many “Get off the shed” skits, and, in most of them, his kids walk up and he realizes that he’s been yelling at the wrong people for no reason. Thus, all of his shouting has accomplished nothing and been for naught—except our entertainment. In Wayne’s story, the dog makes a fortune off of his story and deactivates his Facebook account so that he can get some work done on the film script. Thus, in both examples, what was urgent turns out not to have been so urgent. So, think about your premise: what would make it not urgent? What would make it cease to be a premise? You’ll come up with some obvious answers and some less obvious ones. Play with them to see which is the funniest.

Remember, your goal is to create a structure to riff within. The structure is essential to the humor, but it’s not funny in and of itself. The way that you play within it will be the source of the humor.

Good luck!

How to Write a Story Whose Main Character is Everyone

11 Feb
Nicholas Grider's story, "Millions of Americans are Strange," was published by Guernica and is included in his new collection, Misadventure.

Nicholas Grider’s story, “Millions of Americans are Strange,” was published by Guernica and is included in his new collection, Misadventure, now available from A Strange Object.

The traditional novel and story are biased toward individual experience. This claim may sound odd, but it’s true. In most stories, the world and everything in it is filtered through the point of view of one character at a time. Even if the POV is omniscient, it doesn’t convey all that it knows on every page. Instead, the voice comes down from the skies to narrate what is happening to this character or that one. But what if you wanted to write a story from a larger perspective? Is it possible to write a story whose main character is everyone in the world? In America?

Nicholas Grider has done exactly that in his story, “Millions of Americans are Strange.” It’s included in his debut collection, Misadventure, which is the second book from the independent Austin publisher A Strange Object. You can read it now at Guernica.

(If you’re in Austin: The book release party for Misadventure is happening tonight at Big Medium, 916 Springdale Rd, Bldg 2, Suite 101.)

How the Story Works

If you want to portray an entire civilization at once, there are a couple of ways to go about it. One is to depict people as a single mass, which is Don DeLillo did in his novella Pafko at the Wall, which was also the first chapter of Underworld. This early passage shows how such a perspective works:

Longing on a large scale is what makes history. This is just a kid with a local yearning but he is part of an assembling crowd, anonymous thousands off the buses and trains, people in narrow columns tramping over the swing bridge above the river, and even if they are not a migration or a revolution, some vast shaking of the soul, they bring with them the body heat of a great city and their own small reveries and desperations, the unseen something that haunts the day—men in fedoras and sailors on shore leave, the stray tumble of their thoughts going to a game.

A few paragraphs later, DeLillo describes a group of boys rushing all at once into Ebbets Field, and from then on the novella moves back and forth among the perspectives of the boy and a few other characters and the crowd as a whole.

The other approach to portraying a large group of people is to fly overhead like those military jets that used to buzz my house when I was a kid. From the ground, the roar of the engines would rush over you out of nowhere, and you’d jerk your head up, see the face of the pilot looking down at you, and then the plane would be gone. This is the method used by Grider, though told from the pilot’s perspective. He zooms along, low enough to identify individuals but high enough to leave them quickly behind. Here’s the result:

Frank is a heating and cooling sales rep with an unknowing wife and daughter. Frank pays John to meet him at a hotel when Frank is in town so John can tie him up and leave him alone like that for eight to ten hours. Frank knows John from bumping into him a few times at sales strategies seminars and then talking a little bit over drinks. John lives with his boyfriend, Frederick. Frederick is strikingly handsome.

The story continues to move like this, swiftly jumping from character to character, none of whom are seen again after the continues on its way. The effect is not unlike watching Richard Linklater’s film Slacker. But while Grider’s story establishes this pattern of moving from one character to another, it also sees them as a mass and makes sociological statements about that mass. Here’s a good example that follows immediately after the previous passage:

Men who are strikingly handsome have been found to be more financially successful at work than plain or ugly men. Harold is a plain man who invests a lot of money in clothing, including tailored suits, shirts, ties, pocket squares, tie bars and cuff links, as well as shoes and socks. After a period during which formal business wear was on the wane, millions of Americans are returning to suits and ties in an effort to look more polished and confident.

The story switches between snapshots of individuals and statements about Americans as a whole until the end, when it finishes with a series of statements about Americans. It’s a powerful conclusion, and, if you haven’t read it yet, you should check it out.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s try writing about a large group of people, using both “Millions of Americans are Strange” by Nicholas Grider and Pafko at the Wall by Don DeLillo as models:

The DeLillo Model: The Sentient Crowd

  1. Choose a place where people gather in large numbers. DeLillo chose a baseball game, but you might consider any type of event (wedding, funeral) or venue (school, church, parade, protest, battleground). You could even choose an act that is repeated so many times that the act itself takes on a meaning larger than the individuals involved (migrants crossing borders, war refugees fleeing their homes, Congressional leaders voting or holding press conferences). The goal is to find an opportunity to see both individuals and groups.
  2. Write a sentence that begins with an individual but transitions to the group. DeLillo writes, “This is just a kid with a local yearning but he is part of an assembling crowd…” You can make the transition, as Delillo does, between individual to crowd, or, in the case of an act, you can transition from individual to the act/movement that the individual is part of.
  3. Write a series of sentences that describe the group, act, or movement as an entity to itself. Taken as a whole, how does the group behave? How does the recurring act come to seem like an intelligent being or a computer program that has begun to act independently of its creator? This strategy is often used in journalism and novels about war (The Things They Carried, the opening pages of The Yellow Birds), but it can be used for any situation or group.

The Grider Model: The Low-Flying Plane

  1. Choose a grow of people and a way to characterize them. Grider begins his story with this sentence: “Millions of Americans do strange or extreme things without quite being able to articulate why.” If you wanted to bite off a smaller chunk than America, you might choose a city or town, a school or church. At some point, everyone has made a statement like “Those people are such _____.” This sentence is simply a variation on that common judgment. So, you could write something like this: “In Hiawatha, Kansas, most people _____.”
  2. Write flyover sentences. Grider makes one-sentence summaries of individuals’ behavior or situation, always moving to some new person in the next sentence. You can do the same thing. Pick a handful of people in the group you’ve chosen and describe them in terms of the characterization you made. Don’t think too hard about the descriptions. Let them go where they will, even if it’s away from your original idea.
  3. Write a sentence that describes the group as a whole. Now that you’ve showed the reader a few individuals, zoom out and show those same individuals as a group. What statement can be made about them? Are there trends or changes in behavior? Grider writes, “After a period during which formal business wear was on the wane, millions of Americans are returning to suits and ties in an effort to look more polished and confident.” If you can write a sentence that interesting and weird about a group, then you consider yourself pleased.

Good luck!

How to Let the Story Speak for Itself

30 Jan
Kiese Laymon's collection of essays, "How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America" stunned the writer Roxane Gay "into stillness."

Kiese Laymon’s collection of essays, “How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America,” stunned the writer Roxane Gay “into stillness.”

If you recall anything about your composition classes in high school or college, it may be the requirement that every example be explained or analyzed. As an instructor for these classes, I feel a professional obligation to say that, yes, this is mostly true. But, on the other hand, sometimes the example or story can speak for itself.

Kiese Laymon’s essay, “How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America: A Remembrance,” illustrates not only that some stories do not need to be explained but also that some efforts to explain add a layer that can, at times, falsify the story itself. As Laymon writes, “I wish I could get my Yoda on right now and surmise all this shit into a clean sociopolitical pull-quote that shows supreme knowledge and absolute emotional transformation, but I don’t want to lie.”

The essay is included in the new collection How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America and was originally published at Gawker, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

The first paragraph of the essay lays out what will follow:

I’ve had guns pulled on me by four people under Central Mississippi skies — once by a white undercover cop, once by a young brother trying to rob me for the leftovers of a weak work-study check, once by my mother and twice by myself. Not sure how or if I’ve helped many folks say yes to life but I’ve definitely aided in few folks dying slowly in America, all without the aid of a gun.

The bulk of the essay is the stories about these four incidents with guns. There is almost no transition between them except a sentence like, “16 months later, I’m 18, three years older than Edward Evans will be when he is shot in the head behind an abandoned home in Jackson” or “I don’t know what’s wrong with him but a few months later, I have a gun.”

This lack of transition and explanation/analysis accomplishes two things:

  1. It lets the stories pile up against one another. To some extent, the point is not that one of these stories happened but that they all happened. The references to similar stories that made the news make it clear that not only did all of these stories happen to one person, they happen to people like him all of the time.
  2. They keep the reader in the moment with the writer as he experiences these stories. Very often, we’re tempted to add a layer of distance, to write, “Long ago, when I was young, these things happened.” While it’s true that by the time we sit down to write about something, we’ve given it years of thought, it’s also the case that the act of reflection can distort or veil the thing we are reflecting upon. This reflection protects the writer against judgement or scorn (a way of saying to the reader, “Yeah, I was part of something that makes you and me uncomfortable, but see how much smarter I am now?). Sometimes it’s important to cut straight to the memory itself.

Instead of trying to write statements that show “supreme knowledge and absolute emotional transformation,” Laymon saves his moments of analysis and explanation for the points in the essay where his thoughts at the time might not be immediately clear. Here is one example:

I pick up my gun and think about my Grandma. I think not only about what she’d feel if I went back out there with a gun. I think about how if Grandma walked out of that room with a gun in hand, she’d use it. No question.

I am her grandson.

In this instance, Laymon is explaining a thought process that led to a decision. What follows—the effects of the decision—speak for themselves. At the end of the piece, Laymon does step away from the stories to reflect a bit, but his reflection actually points us back to the stories. Here’s a typical line:

I want to say and mean that remembering starts not with predictable punditry, or bullshit blogs, or slick art that really ask nothing of us; I want to say that it starts with all of us willing ourselves to remember, tell and accept those complicated, muffled truths of our lives and deaths and the lives and deaths of folks all around us over and over again.

In a way, Laymon is making the same point as Tim O’Brien in The Things They Carried: “A true war story, if truly told, makes the stomach believe.” In this essay, by letting the story speak without added explanation, Laymon is aiming for the stomach as much as the head.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s try structuring an essay so that no big explanations are needed, using “How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others: A Remembrance” by Kiese Laymon as a model:

  1. Let the stories pile up against one another. This kind of structure works best with an essay about a recurring event. Each successive version emphasizes both the similarities (here we go again) and the variations (this time, however, was different). In order to find your stories, it might be helpful to think of them as leaves on a stem. What is the single line of causation? In Laymon’s essay, it’s the experience of being black in Mississippi. This is vague and simplistic, of course, but it’s also a place to begin. One way to advance such a simple idea is to ask a basic question: “What does it mean to be ______?” Then, choose an image that resonates with you on an emotional level. Laymon chose the image of a gun. The successive stories become different perspectives of that image, filtered through the basic question of meaning. Choose the right stories and the right image, and the meaning will make itself clear.
  2. Keep the reader in the story as you, the writer, experience it again. In other words, tell the story straight, in present tense if necessary. Focus any explanation on moments of decision making. This might require leaving the moment and writing something like, “My whole life, I’d been ______, but now I ______.” The goal is to portray the complex processes that our minds quickly distill to a snap decision: “So, I ______.” The next paragraphs will show the reader the events or actions that proceed from that decision and the consequences of those actions. The consequences can be stated simply. Less is sometimes more, as Laymon writes here:

The young brother keeps looking back to the car, unsure what he’s supposed to do. Shonda and her friends are screaming when he takes the gun off my chest and trots goofily back to the car.

I don’t know what’s wrong with him but a few months later, I have a gun.

Sometimes, no explanation is needed. The image, the story, and the decision are enough.

Good luck!

How to Write an Ending that Swerves

3 Dec
"Poinsettias" by Myfanwy Collins was published in PANK Magazine.

“Poinsettias” by Myfanwy Collins was published in PANK Magazine.

Sometimes an ending can seem too much like the conclusion of a composition paper. The writer is moved to swerve away from the predictable, to untie the ending from the sense of inevitability that the story has spent its entire existence building. But how?

Myfanwy Collins gives a lesson in excellent endings in her story “Poinsettias.” It was published in PANK, where you can read it now. (Seriously, it’s short and wonderful, and you can read it in three minutes.)

How the Story Works

This kind of last-second-swerve might seem like the famous epiphanies from early Modernist writers. But, it’s actually quite different. To demonstrate, here are two of the most famous epiphany endings:

“Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger”

—from “Araby” by James Joyce.

“In the early morning on the lake sitting in the stern of the boat with his father rowing; he felt quite sure that he would never die.”

—”Indian Camp” by Ernest Hemingway

In both of those stories, the shocking thing is how quickly and suddenly the story states the character’s reaction to events—that is, if you find those lines shocking. To some extent, we’ve read so many epiphany endings that we’re immune to them.

So, now, check out the ending to “Poinsettias” by Myfanwy Collins. Keep in mind that, until this point, the story has been about the weird emotional state that often follows Christmas Day, the question of how long the season should last and when the final vestiges of it, like poinsettias, should be discarded.

“At the supermarket, they told her they would put the rotting turkey carcass in the renderer. They would take care of it, they told her. She felt some responsibility that the flesh of the bird be taken care of, that it be brought gently back to earth, to replenish, to renew. She remembered that when her mother died, hospice had said it was okay to send a personal item with her in the ambulance on the way to the crematory. She chose a fleece, duck-covered blanket that her mother had always snuggled under. That blanket was soft. It was so soft. When she thought of the flames, it was not her mother’s body she saw, but that blanket pushing toward the heat.”

This is an example of an ending that swerves away from predictability. Until this point, the mother has not been mentioned. And yet, we realize now, the entire story has been about her. So, how does the story pull off this ending?

In retrospect, we can see how every significant noun in the story is related to the idea of death.

  • The character, Mandy, constantly sucks on peppermint Altoids because she “didn’t want her mouth to taste like shit. All of these people were walking around with shit-tasting mouths, but not her.”
  • Mandy is upset with her partner about the poinsettias because “Nic would not let the poinsettias die. That was the problem.”
  • The turkey that Mandy bought to cook turns out to be rotten; she “drove the carcass to the market in the way back of her car with the windows cracked, but even now, weeks later, the smell lingered, sulfur twisting up her nostrils.”

So, even though the mother’s death is not introduced until the last paragraph, the story has prepared the reader to learn about it. The ending swerves not because it comes totally out of the blue but because it gives the reader an unexpected way of viewing everything that has come before it.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s prepare to write an ending that swerves, using Myfanwy Collins’ “Poinsettias” as a model:

  1. Choose a topic. You might consider a subject that has been bothering you or scratching at the inside of your head for a while—something you’ve wanted to write about but haven’t figured out how to approach yet.
  2. Free write about ideas, images, people, places, or events that are connected to the topic. Stray as far from the topic as you wish. You’re exploring the mental, emotional, and physical terrain of the story. If you’ve failed to write about the topic from one angle, find another. Myfanwy Collins’ story is about the death of the character’s mother, but it begins with the terrain that exists around that death: Christmas, Altoids, Poinsettias, and a turkey.
  3. Begin a story that has seemingly nothing to do with your topic. Sometimes our stories about topics that we really want to write about begin too directly. We rush up to the topic instead of taking our time, creeping up on it. So, choose one of the things you discovered through free writing and begin the story there.
  4. Switch topics after a few paragraphs or sentences. Myfanwy Collins writes two paragraphs about Altoids and then switches to Poinsettias. If you’re not sure how to make the switch, use the same sentence that Collins uses: “The real problem was that_____.”
  5. Feel for the right moment to introduce the “real” topic. You may need to switch topics again or introduce new elements. But, keep writing. Keep putting your character into moments of tension—in other words, write the story, and if it’s truly about the topic that has been bothering you, that topic will push its head onto the page. Trust your subconscious to put the pieces together.

Good luck!

How to Use Repetition in a Story

9 Jul
Matthew Salesses' story "In My War Novel" was a finalist at HTML Giant and appeared in Fictionaut, a journal that creates reading and writing communities using the tools of social media.

Matthew Salesses’ story “In My War Novel” was a finalist at HTMLGIANT and appeared in Fictionaut, a journal that creates reading and writing communities using the tools of social media.

One of the greatest novels you’ll ever read is The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien. Many of the stories/chapters use repetition (the title story, “How to Tell a True War Story,” and “The Man I Killed” are good examples). Because the book is so good, thousands of admiring writers have probably tried to imitate its style, and almost all of them have found it impossible. But here’s a story that uses repetition successfully: “In My War Novel” by Matthew Salesses.

“In My War Novel” was a finalist at HTMLGIANT and appeared in Fictionaut, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

The story is built on two pieces of repetition. In the first, the narrator repeats the phrase, “In my war novel…” In the second, he keeps returning to an idea laid out early on: “These are the things I know about my wife” and “When my wife left me…” Both pieces cue the reader into the narrator’s obsessions—and in a story like this one, those obsessions are the story.

Here is an excerpt that states those obsessions clearly:

“The hell with those famous wars. I would write about the Korean War. I would write about the Korean War to show that I was Korean and also to rub it in people’s faces. Nobody knows anything about the Korean War except Koreans.

In the time before my wife left me she said I was 100% American. In fact I was 100% Korean, but then my mother didn’t want me anymore, so she left me at the orphanage. When I was 3 I was sent to America. So what does that make me?”

Many writers might avoid using repetition because it seems incompatible with plot. After all, how can a story move forward if it keeps repeating itself?

Matthew Salesses’ answer is to work within a loose plot structure. He lets us know from the opening two paragraphs that the narrator’s wife has left him but that they’re not divorced and that she’s kept his last name. The rest of the story essentially answers the questions any reader naturally asks: Why did she leave him? Why didn’t she divorce him? Why did she keep his name? These questions don’t have simple answers or answers. It’s difficult to look back at their marriage and point to a clean, linear progression of failure. Instead, there are bad periods and good periods, times when both parties are trying and times when they’ve become disconnected. As a result, the marriage plot of “In My War Novel” is ideal for a story using repetition. The pressure to trace a clear storyline isn’t as strong. And, when we reflect back on events, our thoughts tend to move in circles—and so a story about reflection lends itself to strategies of repetition.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s try using repetition, with “In My War Novel” serving as a model.

  1. Choose a basic plot to work within. Salesses uses the story of a failed marriage (in a way, it’s a version of the old star-crossed lovers plot). The key is to choose a plot that doesn’t require a step-by-step, chronological explanation. Possibilities include any story of failure or success (business, relationship, parenting) or any story that tries to explain a general circumstance in the present day by looking back over a vast time period (How I became rich, poor, sad, happy, imprisoned, outcast, exiled, embraced, or famous).
  2. Choose one or more obsessions for the narrator or character. Ideally, the obsession should tie in to the plotline. In Matthew Salesses’ story, the obsessions are central to that character: why did my wife leave me and why don’t I have a clear identity? In “The Man I Killed” by Tim O’Brien, the narrator keeps revisiting the wounds on the body of a man he killed. In “The Things They Carried,” also by Tim O’Brien, the story returns to the items carried by the soldiers and, ultimately, to those items’ emotional as well as physical meaning. In both those stories, the obsession is central to the characters’ situation. Their days are spent killing people and carrying stuff.
  3. Begin writing paragraphs that begin with some version of an obsession. Salesses tends to begin with variations on the phrases “When my wife left me…” and “In my war novel…” O’Brien, in “The Man I Killed,” often begins with the phrase “The man I killed…” Use the paragraphs to examine the obsession from as many different angles as possible. For instance, what would the character/narrator’s parents or wife or husband or kids or friends or coworkers or boss say about it? What does the obsession look like in private, in public, with particular people? What does the obsession look like during the morning/afternoon/evening/night?
  4. Write as many paragraphs as you can for each obsession.

It’s true that what you write will likely have no forward momentum. It won’t resemble a story. With a strategy like this one, revision becomes key (though, to be honest, it’s necessary for all stories). After you’ve exhausted your ideas (not just after a day but perhaps a few weeks or months of writing), you’ll need to go back and scramble the paragraphs into coherent sense. You’ll need to discover the story and, perhaps, add connecting tissue between the paragraphs. If you reread “In My War Story,” you’ll see those bits of tissue, paragraphs that don’t begin with either obsession.

Basically, you’re starting a story that may take a year or more to finish. That’s fine. It’s good. It means you’ll always have something to work on.

Have fun.

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